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Letter from Gaza: Dust, Drones and Donkeys

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It is a long walk into Gaza.

One thousand metres of caged walkway separate the sterile, futuristic and, to my mind, faintly sinister Israeli checkpoint at Erez from the Palestinian entry-point on the northern border.

But before we get to the checkpoint we have to wait 500 metres down the road for Israeli military personnel to escort us to the crossing.

The soldier who meets us is all smiles and quips, clapping his hands as if he's chairing a mothers' meeting rather than herding journalists into a war zone. "Come on, come on! Time to get to the front; all press vehicles follow me. Those who don't have a car, hop in".

This is how I find myself in the back seat of an inconspicuous little runaround, sandwiched between two journalists with cameras, rucksacks and flak jackets (for those who have them) balanced precariously on our knees.

It's the kind of car your gran might drive on her weekly trip to Tesco. An Israeli flag on a key chain hangs from the car mirror. I half expect a Maroon Five song to start playing. Our friendly soldier makes small clucks of disapproval as other journalists overtake us in their 4x4s. "Look at them! So keen, yes?"

As we clamber out he exhorts us to "Stay safe".

An older Swiss journalist shakes his head. "I've been in [to Gaza] every day this week and it's always the same story. He wishes me good luck, I cross over, and then his colleagues try to kill me".

This does not prevent hordes of hungry hacks descending on the Israeli checkpoint with the kind of enthusiasm that is usually reserved for World Cup-winning football teams.

The border staff are singularly unmoved by these competitive scuffles. We hand over our passports and Israeli government press cards for inspection before entering the fortress-like Israeli terminal, a labyrinthine structure that looks as if it might have been conjured up in the head of J. G. Ballard.

Following a number of suicide bombings, the majority of border staff are located in offices several storeys above ground, looking down through reinforced windows and occasionally barking commands over loudspeaker.

After squeezing ourselves, with luggage in tow, through two narrow turnstiles, we are met by an imposing metal door that slides open on the whim of Israeli command: a military version of "Open Sesame". The buffer zone is strangely peaceful, a post-apocalyptic landscape where beetles scurry between piles of rubble and small patches of scrubland.

We are now officially in Gaza but there is no "Welcome" sign to greet us, just a barricaded walkway and a solitary wheelchair.

In 2010 British Prime Minister David Cameron was criticised for describing Gaza as a "prison camp", but it is hard to disagree when faced with a population of 1.7 million Palestinians packed into 140 square miles and the grim realities of border control.

Until 1991 Israel allowed free passage from Erez. Gazan residents were required to obtain individual exit permits to Israel but, following the start of the second intifada in September 2000, exit permits were restricted and the crossing was frequently closed. Since March 2006, Israel's policy has been "not to permit entry of residents of the Gaza Strip except in extreme and exceptional humanitarian cases". The entry of workers from Gaza into Israel is forbidden and of those who are able to leave the majority are patients requiring medical treatment in Israel. Not all patients who require treatment are given permission to cross. A report from the World Health Organization detailed how, in the three months of 2007 that preceded the Hamas takeover, Israel approved 90 percent of exit requests; in the last three months of 2007 the figure dropped to 69 percent.

I know we have arrived in Gaza when we are met by a huddle of Hamas security guards, casually dressed in black jumpers accessorized with Kalashnikovs. Our bags are searched to make sure we are not trying to smuggle in alcohol, and my ice-tea is sniffed with suspicion until my Palestinian guide reassures them otherwise.

Among the chaos of burnt-out buildings and smoking rubble it is hard to believe we're a mere kilometre away from the anodyne shopping malls, well-tended roads and immaculate gardens of southern Israel. As Noam Chomsky notes, "Gaza has the look of a Third World country, with pockets of wealth surrounded by hideous poverty. It is not, however, undeveloped. Rather it is 'de-developed,' and very systematically so."

During Operation Pillar of Defence Israel's Interior Minister Eli Yishai urged the Israeli Defence Forces "to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages", and judging from the cumulative effects of ongoing war and a blockade of air, sea and land, the Israelis have done a pretty good job. Many Gazans live without running water, adequate sewage facilities or reliable electricity supplies and two-fifths of the population live below the poverty line, existing on less than $2 a day.

It is possible to see the ghosts of a prosperous past, which led to Gaza's historical naming as 'the treasure' and 'the ruler's prize'. As a Mediterranean seaport it was once a hub of trade with a flourishing fishing industry, but I cannot help compare the disgruntled donkeys and crumbling infrastructure with the bright lights and high-tech buildings of its near neighbour Tel Aviv.

As I am to find out, nothing is as it seems. Among the debris, entrepreneurs plan beachside restaurants and social activists hatch campaigns to a backdrop of bombs.

It's a long walk into Gaza.